Slaves carried out hardest work in building Capitol

Contributions known but rarely mentioned, historian says

February 21, 2002|By Wayne Washington | Wayne Washington,BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - They are, according to the ledgers of American history, faceless names with firm hands and strong backs.

Negro Ben, Negro Bill. Negro Charles, Negro Dick and Negro Harry. They had no last names - at least none that were regularly recorded, but every American who feels a burst of pride when he or she sees images of the classically beautiful White House or the grand Capitol building owes something to them.

With those firm hands and strong backs, they did the hard and dirtiest work in building two of America's greatest symbols.

Slaves dug out stone for building blocks and hewed trees into lumber, as America's new capital city and its most important buildings emerged from the vast forests and wetlands that made up 18th-century Washington.

How the projects were completed without the assistance of modern machinery was described by the historian William C. Allen, who has written about the original architect of the Capitol, James Hoban. Allen said: "Slaves are going to do the backbreaking work. Literally, you're taking these massive rocks and coaxing them out of the earth. It's done with pick-axes and wedges. Absolutely backbreaking work."

For his considerable efforts, each man was given a blanket, meals of pork and bread, whiskey, and permission to live in huts near the construction sites. Georgetown and Alexandria, the only settlements in the area, were too far from the construction sites and it would have been dark when the workday was done. Slaves were not to roam about after dark.

$60 a year

The men who owned the slaves were paid $60 a year. That was just a fraction of what free men earned for much the same work, but as compensation for the sunup-to- sundown exertions of their human property, it suited the slaveowners.

The contributions of Negro Harry and the others have always been known, though rarely mentioned and not recognized. No plaque or statue in either building highlights their work. But pay stubs from the Treasury Department - unearthed by Washington television reporter Edward Hotaling two years ago when he was researching the 200th anniversary of the Capitol's opening - mark their work with chilling clarity.

"For hire of Negro Nace for the month of October, 1795," one reads. The stub shows that someone else, a man whose name in the faded script looks like Edmund Plowdere, got $5 for Nace's work.

Another pay stub from the same period shows James Height was paid $5 "for hire of Gerald and Torry at the Capitol."

Records are few

The use of slaves to build the symbols of a nation laying a special claim to freedom was routine. Despite the fascination Americans have with the White House and the Capitol building, detailed stories of how they were built are few. With the exception of the pay stubs, records from the period are few, too, though that's not the only reason the contribution of the slaves has been largely overlooked.

"The histories told of those buildings have been of the prominent citizens involved with them, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington," said Robert Kapsch, senior historical scholar for the National Park Service.

"The next stories told were of the design and architecture of the buildings. You hear about people like Hoban and [Capitol designer Charles] Bulfinch. But now the stories that need to be told are of the labor history of the buildings. You can't tell that story without talking about the slaves," Kapsch said.

Kapsch and Allen have been doing just that.

Kapsch recently completed a dissertation on the building of the Capitol, and Allen's book, History of the United States Capitol, was published recently. Both devote sections in their work to the project's labor history and note the slaves' contribution.

Those contributions have caught the eye of members of Congress, too. Over the last two years, Rep. J.C. Watts, an Oklahoma Republican, has been working with Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, to draft legislation for a commission to study how the slave workers should be honored.

$2 million project

Watts said the commission is likely to include himself or Lewis, the architect of the Capitol, the librarian of the Congress, the House manager of historical services, and a member of the Senate, probably Blanche Lambert Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who has been supportive of the idea. Lewis and Watts have already pushed through legislation authorizing up to $2 million to be spent making preliminary plans for a Black History Museum. President Bush signed that legislation in December.

Hoban and Pierre L'Enfant, who planned the layout of Washington, have received more recognition than the slaves who worked for them because their work was skilled. The fingerprints they left on Washington and its architecture are clear to this day.

But Watts said honoring Hoban and L'Enfant and overlooking the slaves is wrong. "Lee Iacocca, when he was chairman of Chrysler, he gave the vision," Watts said. "But it was the people on the assembly line who made the cars go. You can't give all the credit to Lee Iacocca."

The slaves, Watts said, "got no benefits. They got up every morning and went to work. It was the master who got paid. It was the master who got the benefit."

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